Earlier this week it came to light that Hillary Clinton had been using private email to conduct official Secretary of State business. Clinton reportedly set up a private email account before becoming Secretary of State to use for State Department affairs. The type of account used by Clinton allows users a high level of control over communications, including the ability to completely erase messages without leaving a record of the message. The revelation brought to light several issues: cybersecurity vulnerabilities and FOIA access to government emails.
The use of a private email account by public officials is both a risk to cyber-security and transparency – both issues have been championed by the Obama Administration. After the Sony Pictures hack, the White House has made mention of the importance of digital security. Clinton’s use of private emails certainly opens up those pieces of correspondence to increased security risks and to a risk of data loss.
Using a private company to set up a personal email account adds in outside interests to the security process whereas government emails have fewer access points. Government email domains can only be set up by government agencies, limiting the number of people who can access them. “From a technical perspective, a cabinet member using a homemade solution means adding an array of technologies and middlemen through whom the United States government can effectively be severely compromised,” Patrick Nielsen, Senior Security Researcher for Kaspersky Research, said.
FOIA and Transparency
Clinton’s private email setup should also teach us a lesson about the value and importance of transparency in government correspondence. The Freedom of Information Act enables the public to request the disclosure of government documents – including emails. However, private email correspondence does not fall under the same jurisdiction and does not need to be disclosed as a result of a FOIA request. Using a private email system leaves more risk of important messages not being properly preserved.
“What I can tell you is that very specific guidance has been given to agencies all across the government, which is specifically that employees of the Obama administration should use their official email accounts when they’re conducting official government business,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “However, when there are situations where personal email accounts are used, it is important for those records to be preserved consistent with the Federal Records Act.”
FOIA processing is much simpler when all email correspondence goes through secure government channels. Maintaining emails through a government account also means that there is less risk of losing data. When government offices have access to all emails in one place, it takes less time to track down specific information in response to FOIA requests or internal needs.
Automation tools like AINS’ FOIAXpress Advance Document Review (ADR) can help agencies to sort through correspondences like emails, but only when that information is available to the agency. The FOIAXpress ADR tool searches through documents to find the ones responsive to FOIA requests. Automating this process can save government offices a ton of time and manpower.
This past Wednesday, Clinton stated on Twitter that she wants the public to see the email correspondence from the time period in question. A Clinton aide stated that Clinton turned over more than 50,000 pages of messages from her tenure as Secretary of State.
Courtney James is AINS’ Marketing & Graphic Design Associate. She has experience with social media, public relations, graphic design, event management, and many other marketing topics. Courtney loves to blog about topics dealing with technology in government, social media, and case management. She holds degrees in Communication and Art from the University of Maryland, College Park.